GREEN BAY - With one game left before the bye and two weeks left before the Green Bay Packers face a brutal five-game stretch featuring road tests at the Los Angeles Rams, New England, Seattle and Minnesota, the best you can say about first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit is that you don’t know what you’re going to get week to week.
This is true not only if you follow the team as entertainment, but if your job is to construct game plans against it.
Statistically, the Packers don’t have a bad defense. They came into Week 6 ranked fourth in yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed and tied for 15th in rushing yards allowed. They ranked third in sacks per play, sixth in fewest first downs per game and 15th in third-down efficiency.
But as Pettine wisely pointed out last week, the overall defensive rankings don’t mean anything since they only measure yards allowed, and if you’re giving up short touchdown drives, as the Packers did against Detroit in Week 5, that ranking doesn’t mean diddly squat.
It also doesn’t mean a whole lot if your best performance was against Buffalo rookie Josh Allen and the three established veterans you faced – Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Washington’s Alex Smith and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford – combined to throw for 802 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Two of the team’s four interceptions and seven of its 16 sacks came against Allen. They are catching a break Monday night because San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Jimmy Garappolo is out for the season with a knee injury and little-known C.J. Beathard will take his place.
Overall, the defense deserves to get nicked for its first-half performance against Chicago (17 points), it’s second-half performance against Minnesota (22 points), its first-half performance against Washington (28 points) and its first-half performance against Detroit (24 points).
In those four halves, the Packers allowed 91 of their opponents’ 114 points this season. The best way to define the significance of those numbers is that Pettine’s defense isn’t bad once it figures things out.
“We’ve got a long way to go until we feel like we’re a truly cohesive unit where guys know what the other guy is doing next to him and there’s the trust,” Pettine said. “I think it’s only natural to not have that in the beginning when it’s still a new defense and it’s unfamiliar.”
Pettine is to blame for some of the inconsistencies the defense has displayed. He has chosen to dole out playing time like it’s cake at a birthday party, giving just about everybody a slice.
So far, Pettine has lined up with more than a dozen different position combinations and within those dozen, multiple variations of personnel.
Here’s an example:
Pettine plays a nickel defense (five defensive backs) more than any other, but within the nickel he might use three defensive linemen instead of the traditional two or he might use a safety in place of an inside linebacker or he might use three outside linebackers and one defensive lineman instead of two outside linebackers and two defensive linemen.
And within those combinations he might use, for example, Antonio Morrison, Oren Burks or Korey Toomer alongside Blake Martinez when he goes with two inside linebackers. Or he might go with Clay Matthews or Reggie Gilbert rushing up the middle when he has three outside linebackers on the field.
He has used Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson and Jermaine Whitehead as slot corners in that defense as well.
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The defenses Pettine runs often employ the same principles, but to create the best match-ups, he’ll shuffle personnel in and out of the game and that can result in inconsistency.
According to NFL-provided statistics, Pettine has played his most common combination of players just 4.62 percent of the time. Only seven teams have a lower percentage and Washington leads the league playing its most common combination of players 22.41 percent of the time.
Martinez, who along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the only players to have taken every defensive snap, said he doesn’t think this is the way Pettine always handles his defense. He said Pettine's way of getting the most out of the talent he has on this team is by identifying the best players for the call he’s about to make.
“I think it depends on the guys you have,” Martinez said. “It’s allowing us to do a lot of different things with all the personnel groupings that we have. It’s not allowing the offense to know what we’re in. They might be unsure of how we’re going to match up against them.”
Fifteen defensive players have played at least 25 percent of the snaps this year, which is a high number when you consider the only players who have missed multiple games on defense are end Muhammad Wilkerson, cornerback Kevin King, cornerback Davon House, safety Josh Jones and Burks. Jones is the only one who has missed three; all the others have missed two.
It’s possible as the season goes on and players begin to establish themselves, Pettine will pull back on the amount of substituting. Part of it will be how comfortable he feels playing three rookies in any situation without fear they’ll be overmatched.
It’s clear he already feels comfortable playing rookies Alexander and Jackson in any type of situation and so when Alexander returns from a groin injury, there might not be as much substitution. If Pettine can gain that comfort with Burks, who is an athletically superior player to any other inside linebacker, he could limit the rotation even more.
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“You hit the reset button each week, so if you have guys that are playing well and they’ve logged a certain amount of repetitions at a position and they’re playing well, there’s no reason to look to make a change,” Pettine said. “If you have a player that in a limited role is playing well and you want to expand that then you find ways to expand it.
“We’re also not afraid if a guy’s not playing well to go ahead and make a move to get him off the field all together or just lessen (his role).”
What makes the 49ers game so important is that it’s the last chance to clean up the poor communication between safeties and corners that has led to easy touchdowns and the poor discipline in the run defense that has allowed running backs to get around the corner before facing the Rams, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Cousins for a second time.
If the defense doesn’t meld into a more consistent unit as the Packers approach the toughest part of their schedule, then it might be too late. Even if the Packers do beat the 49ers on Monday night they face the prospect of being 3-4-1 at the halfway point and possibly needing seven victories in their final eight games to make the playoffs.
Pettine is trying to balance patience with urgency.
“Usually there’s a tendency to maybe try to do too much,” Pettine said. “We’re fighting some of that. But I think for the most part you like where we’re headed, but there’s always that urgency to get where you want to go quicker.”